The Carolina Panthers nearly doubled the Chicago Bears’ in total yardage, ran the ball marginally better than they had of late and held a 17-minute edge in time of possession.
But in terms of touchdowns, Cam Newton and Co. kept giving them to the wrong team.
And that was the difference in the Panthers’ 17-3 loss to Chicago on a gray, grim day that mirrored Carolina’s offensive performance.
Newton and rookie receiver Curtis Samuel combined to put Eddie Jackson into the NFL history books. The Bears’ rookie safety became the first player to score two defensive touchdowns of 75 yards or longer in a game.
Samuel gift-wrapped Jackson’s first score by fumbling an option pitch from Newton on a promising opening drive. Samuel tried to fall on the ball, and tight end Ed Dickson also had a shot at it.
But it squirted to Jackson, who scooped it up and sprinted 75 yards in front of the Panthers’ sideline. When former GM Dave Gettleman drafted Samuel in the second round for his big-play potential, this is not what he had in mind.
“I kind of took my eyes off it too early worrying about the defense,” Samuel said. “But I’ve got to make that play.”
Jackson’s next score came early in the second quarter when Newton went to a well-covered Benjamin on a slant route on third-and-10. Cornerback Prince Amukamara wedged in front of Benjamin, knocked the ball into the air and Jackson caught the deflection and was off to the races again.
Newton was the only Panther with a chance to stop Jackson, but his diving tackle attempt came up empty.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera said the 6-5 Benjamin could have shielded the 6-foot corner from the ball, and Benjamin took the blame for what transpired after Amukamara batted it.
“He stuck his hand in there and popped it up. I couldn’t find it. Safety came and picked it,” Benjamin said. “I’ve got to do a better job of finding that ball and knocking it down.”
The Panthers had long fields most of the day and picked up their yardage the hard way.
Benjamin’s acrobatic, 37-yard catch at the end of the first half was the only completion longer than 20 yards, and was wasted when slot receiver Russell Shepard (and others) couldn’t get set in time for Newton to spike the ball and set up Graham Gano for a field goal.
While former Panther Ted Ginn Jr. was catching seven passes for 141 yards in New Orleans’ victory over Green Bay, the Panthers’ leading receiver was running back Christian McCaffrey, who averaged 5.1 yards on his seven grabs.
Newton was asked after the game whether it was a case of offensive coordinator Mike Shula not calling many deep passes or receivers not getting open down the field.
“I can’t answer that question,” Newton said. “I’m executing the play that is given to me and pretty much trying to check what the defense gives me.”
But Rivera said mixing things up offensively can be beneficial, pointing to Jackson’s pick-six as evidence.
“Amukamara took a shot on the slant. If you run something different there, like a slant-and-go, that’s a touchdown,” Rivera said. “You look at those things and wonder.”
Newton had another interception in the second half when he tried to force a throw to McCaffrey (who else?) and was picked off by linebacker Danny Trevathan. At least Trevathan’s takeaway didn’t end with a touchdown.
Tight end Ed Dickson also tried to look on the bright side, mentioning a running game that showed signs of life despite injuries to two-fifths of the starting line.
But it was tough for other members of the offense to swallow a loss on a day when former Panthers coach John Fox treated rookie quarterback Mitch Trubisky like he was on a Stephen Strasburg pitch count.
The Panthers (4-3) outgained Chicago (3-4) 293 to 153, picked up 20 first downs to the Bears’ five ... and lost by two touchdowns.
“It was frustrating because if you take away those two plays that happened, it’d be a tight game,” said center Tyler Larsen, who took over for Ryan Kalil in the first quarter.
“I know if you look at the stats, it looked like we were having a great game. But in the score, there’s nothing to show for it.”
Newton, who was sacked five times, held the ball too long on a few of those plays waiting for receivers to get open. And other times when they did get separation, Newton didn’t see them or overthrew them.
Asked if he sensed frustration from his quarterback, Benjamin said: “I think everybody was frustrated. The whole offense was frustrated because the defense was giving us three-and-outs and we didn’t put points up.”
It took Rivera a long time to emerge from the locker room after the game to meet the media. Dickson said Rivera’s message was forward-looking.
“There’s no sense of panic. We’re not 0-and-whatever. We have to play better football,” Dickson said. “Coach Rivera said we’ll see what we’re made of. It’s the NFL. We’re not playing the Louisiana Techs. This is real teams out there.”
But the Panthers hurt themselves against an average team Sunday, a loss that might look worse come December.